Jessica L. Moody

Questioning the Norm


alternative schools

Classroom Management Strategies (Part 2)

As you might imagine, teaching students in an alternative school, juvenile court school, or inner city school can be challenging.  I have more than 8 years of experience working in these classrooms and have learned quite a bit about how to get students to work for me and not against me.  As much as students in a regular classroom can take over the emotions and can cause chaos, student’s who have almost no buy-in to school and spend most of their time with no adult supervision outside of school have an ability that other students don’t.  Teachers must use different strategies to connect and manage these classrooms.  

One thing we must realize about many of these students is that they have been kicked out of class so often that sometimes they begin to prefer it to staying in class.  They have lost hope for teachers to give them another chance.  Also, if they get kicked out then nothing is expected from them and nothing has to change. They are more comfortable getting into trouble than they are of pushing through and finishing something that is difficult. My suggestions for changing this cycle aren’t always going to result in an inspirational movie ending, but having strategies to get through one lesson or day at a time can be helpful.    

Classroom management strategy #1:


  • Get the leader on your side


Teenagers all want love, acceptance, and the feeling of belonging.  One of my students who was one of the hardest of gang members (is now on the most wanted list in San Diego and is certainly off in Mexico somewhere) had the best personality when he was in a good mood.  He loved to write and was a skilled writer compared to the rest of the class.  When he was present and participating the whole class followed his lead.  When he decided to rebel and take over the class, the rest would follow.  So I learned that to get the whole classes attention and focus, all my energy would be to figure out how to get Gerardo in a good mood.  So I spent time to figure out what he liked to work on, what he was good at, and learned to communicate with him effectively.  Did I ignore the rest of the students? No.  Did I do it in a way that was obvious to him or the rest of the class? No, he had no idea that I was the one doing the manipulating.  All I realized was that if HE listened, the whole class would, so I focused on learning how to get him to listen. Generally, if you find out the leader, in a class of gang members, the rest will follow whatever they do, so narrow your focus to the leader.

There were times where I pulled Gerardo out of class to negotiate with him.  I would say, “Hey Gerardo, you know and I know that the other students follow your lead.  We really need to get through this lesson and it would help me out if you would be the leader that you are and just push through so we can be done.  Would you help me out?”  

This conversation has a strategy.  

  1. I gave him a compliment: I told him that he is the leader and all the other students follow him.  
  2. I told him what needs to be done.
  3. And finally I asked him for help.  

9 out of 10 times, Gerardo struts back into class, sits down, tells the other students to “shut up” and we get through it without any more hiccups.    

Classroom management strategy #2:


  • Whisper to the student that is causing problems and give them a way out.


ANYTIME you need to address a specific student, this is a strategy to try. (Remember that different strategies work on different kids.  If I know a student is loud and brash I will use a different strategy than with a quiet student.)  You will find variations that work but this is mine:

  1. If a student is causing problems blatantly, walk by without looking at them and tap on their desk or a variation of this.  The idea is to get them to know that you are onto them.  Try to be inconspicuous.  
  2. If you must say something just keep it simple, “Gerardo, can I talk to you for a second?”  You can either whisper it to them, gesture to them, or say it lightly by the door. Open the door and walk through and wait outside for them with the door propped open with your shoe. (remember: many of these students love confrontation and they are probably better at it than you. Don’t do it even though you want to.)
  3. If they come out immediately, they will most likely say something to puff up their pride as they walk out, just ignore them and don’t address what they said at all.  

If they say seated and don’t come outside, peek in and say, “Hey, Gerardo, please, I need to talk to you for a minute.” or gesture again.

If they refuse to move, you have wasted precious class time and it is time to speed up the process.  Walk over to their desk and get closer to them and say, “I need you to come outside or we will have to come up with another solution.”   They might say, Mrs. Moody, I am doing my work at any point during this process.  Say, Okay, but if it happens again, we will need to talk.  

Classroom management strategy #3:


  • Learn with them.  


Give students opportunities to teach you something.  Be interested in their lifestyle, their culture or history that they care about.  When I first began to work in the Juvenile court schools, the students would always talk about Scarface and the movie American Me.  I hated to admit that I had never seen either of them, but I did.  I let them tell me about the movies and then I took the time over one weekend and watched them.  It helped me to learn about their worldview and their goals.  

I went even further, printed out some articles about Scarface and created an expository writing unit plan.  (Note that I did not bring the movie in or even encourage those who hadn’t seen it to watch it.  I even got approval from my principal to bring this topic into the classroom.)  We discussed the themes of the movie, I taught them skills on how to read an article and pull out interesting quotes, and then we wrote a 3 paragraph essay on the article.  

Using students’ interest to create lessons is the number 1 thing to do to create a class that is engaged and easy to manage.  After that unit, I was able to get them to buy in better to the following, more English-content driven lessons since I proved to them that I cared about their interests.   



Strategies for Classroom Management-For the Most Challenging Classrooms (Part 1)


I have worked in alternative high school settings in Southern California for 8 years.  I have seen it all.  I know what works and what does not work.  Control does not work; psychology does.  You Tube Video  Click here for a video Version of this post.

Part One will discuss What Not To Do
Part Two will discuss What To Do  


I was a Teacher’s Assistant in one of the most challenging alternative schools in San Diego County while I was going to college.  During that time, I was able to learn an immense about classroom management as I saw substitute teacher after substitute teacher fall flat on their face, cry, and leave defeated after a classroom of rebellious students, mostly gang members, ate them alive. 

I saw the manipulation tactics in full force.  The students switching names, seats, convincing the teacher of made up rules, and overall just taking over the classroom (the kind of classes the Substitute had taught in the inner cities, I’m sure). I have seen students cause teachers to cry and then the students play the victim and blame the sub.  In my experience, I have had a student throw a desk across the room in frustration.  I have kicked students out daily. I have been called every name in the book in front of the whole class and have had a few of them get so close to my face that I could feel their breath.   

I have also lost control over my own behaviors that the class was unable to resume. I have tried my hardest to regain some normalcy or control but failed daily.  I have tried everything for certain classes and left defeated.  I had this one kid, one that I hope no one ever has to experience, who had a diagnosed behavioral defiance disorder.  This kid was completely unable to agree or say yes or do anything that anyone told him to do.  That’s the kid I will never forget.  That’s the kid that I dedicate this post to, haha!  

So what mistakes did I make?

I tried to control, micromanage, persuade, bribe, anything you can imagine to get these students to behave and “Just do your work!”  But experienced teachers know that micromanaging students who are expert manipulators only leads to giving away control over the classroom.  So without further adieu, let’s address the strategies that don’t work.

  1. Don’t take it personally.    

It’s not about you.  It is not about hurting your feelings or making you feel bad.  You are a pawn in the game of “Let’s make the teacher cry so we can brag about it for years.” It is a game to them. You become nothing but a means for entertainment and wasting class time, so they don’t have to work.  

Don’t be overly emotional about anything.  This does not mean to be stoic and unemotional.  It means that once students realize that you are reacting to them, they will know that you don’t have control over your own emotions and they can and will start playing games.  These are generally innocent “I am not doing anything wrong” type of games but they will continue until they get kicked out or you cry, whichever comes first.  (Losing the emotional battle will most likely happen at some point, and it is recoverable but not ideal.) 

2. Don’t call out students from across the room or debate with them



Oh, I’ve played this game a lot.  It looks like:

Me: Gerardo, get to work.
Gerardo: Huh? I am working.
Me: No you’re talking.
Gerardo: No I’m not. *lifts up paper. See, I’m working. You’re interrupting me.

This is a very simple example, It could be so much worse than this.  The bottom line is that students of this caliber will debate about anything and they are most likely way better at it than you, they have more endurance to keep it going longer than you have patience for, and if you lose your patience then they win.

I call this The Rule of 2 Back and Forths. If you make 2 statements and they try to keep it going, stop it by giving them the “Because I said so” statement, the “Do we need to talk about this outside?” statement, or a variation of a “This conversation is over” statement and ignore the rest.    

3. Don’t have a power struggle



You will never win if you think that teaching is about winning the outward battle.  If teachers learn psychology with these students, we will either become the winners while making the class think they are winning or we will make ourselves crazy trying.  

Let them think they are winning as often as you can.  If letting a student get the last word every time gets them to be quiet so you can move on, then let them.  They will think they have won but you have been able to continue and finish what you are doing.  If you hate stopping in the middle of class to have a talk with a student, do it anyways.  Take the time that you need in order to improve the flow of the class in the future.    

The bottom line is whatever you pour into them, the expectations, the relational connection, or the time, you will get back only a fraction in return.  So make the amount that you pour into them over and beyond, so that you will return a bigger amount.  

This may sound like a drag, and the Don’ts are always a drag… stay tuned for the What TO DOs tomorrow so that the whole thing doesn’t sound all negative and life-sucking.  

Let’s review:

  1. Don’t take it personally.
  2. Don’t call out students from across the room or debate with them
  3. Don’t have a power struggle

Do you have any other DO NOTs to add?

Stay tuned for the TO DOs…

I have decided that if I am going to move up in the field of education to eventually be a leader in this school choice movement, then I need to address the issues as a business with a education focus.  These are the problems with public education that I would like to be addressed once I enter this level of leadership:

  1. If school choice is going to be pushed through the nation, including California, then I want people who are educated or have experience as teachers building this movement, not business people.  School choice is a chance for schools to fix what is broken and will NEVER be fixed through public education.  Allowing parents to choose schools WILL force even public schools to rethink their strategies and become better at what they do.  My current school district has seen a drop in enrollment for about 10 years in a row because when parents see consistent problems, they choose other options.  And, yes, common core has a great negative influence on many parents.  My school district has actually made improvements to be more competitive in the past few years.  A few years ago we were forced into program improvement and only then have we begun a movement into using scientifically proven educational strategies.  Many people would agree that we were stuck in the dark ages and were forced into this change.  Many teachers who love their craft and constantly move towards self-improvement have made school better for their students.  Others, though, have stayed the same because, you know, tenure.  Tenure allows crappy teachers to stay crappy teachers because after they are tenured, it’s their choice.  After they begin their first day of their third year, they can stay in the stone age if they so desire and who reaps the consequences?  Everyone but the tenured teacher who can’t be fired… Awesome!!
  2. Rigor in public schools is rarely found outside of advanced classes.  I’m referring to rigor as most of us remember it, rigor that required memorization and application. Rigor that allowed us to begin our freshman year of college somewhat prepared for college level work.  I mean somewhat because all of us had some sort of difficulty adjusting, but not to the level that we are seeing in college freshmen today.  Students get so much CHOICE in the classroom, that they think they can pick and choose what they do and don’t based off whether they enjoy the activity (or the teacher) or not.  We teachers hold their hands and if they choose not to succeed it, we are to blame.  Teachers are expected to create a PERFECT environment for the students to have rigorous texts, but not too rigorous that they give up.  We are expected to make them think but not too much.  We are expected to have great classroom management skills but we must insure that the students like us, because we all know that we only learn from people we like… hum…  Well, in the world of education today, if everything isn’t perfect for each student, then it’s the teacher’s responsibility to change, not the student.  No wonder we are creating a bunch of snowflakes that can’t handle the world.  I have an enormous amount of students with health problems including physical problems like thyroid issues and many psychological problems like anxiety and depression.   The least amount of sternness or blatantly clear expectations from me brings on anxiety attacks, meltdowns, and students thinking they can cuss me out and leave because of their stress level or that I “disrespected them.”  Students have not been taught respect for elders because they get so much choice.  Damn, if I could choose, I would have chosen for Marine Corps boot camp to be more like girl scout camp.  I would have chosen for all my professors in college to let me have 3 times as long to read the texts that were difficult or even take them out of the curriculum if it was too difficult or if I didn’t agree with it.  We are not doing the students any favors by dumbing down the curriculum for them.  In fact, that brings me to my next point.
  3. Alternative schools are not helping to improve students chance to succeed, they seem to be in place just to give the schools another way to make money off the students.  Each student equals money for schools.  Most of these types of schools are half-day programs (8-12 or 12-4, or some variation).  The days are cut in half and the expectations within each class period are cut in half, resulting in students getting a quarter of the content as a regular school.  I know from experience that even getting a quarter of the education into a classroom full of gang members, literal juvenile delinquents, and students whose parents can’t control them or don’t care is better than nothing.  But this is an injustice to those students who do graduate.  As much as students who graduate from regular high schools aren’t prepared for adulthood and college level expectations, students that graduate from alternative schools are ill-equipped for any jobs with opportunity for growth and they are definitely not prepared for any trade school or college.  Even the few students that have the hope for college realize very quickly how little resources they have personally and communally to succeed.  This is an act of appeasement.  We are appeasing to the students lack of motivation, desire, and perceived abilities.  We are not giving them a fair chance to succeed by sliding them through because we have lowered the standards.  These students with anxiety and depression issues, the students who lack motivation to even work hard in school will become adults with the same problems.

I guess this is just the beginning of my rant.  Next time I will provide some solutions.


  • How wrong would it be to put aside the book work education and provide students who don’t buy into the system with a trade that is useful and needed in society?
  • Since these programs are already available and seeing success, how difficult would it be to implement into an already running district of alternative education schools?
  • Have you ever heard of any schools that are doing this and are successful?
  • Is tenuring teachers after the beginning of their third year fair to students?  Especially the students who get the teachers who immediately begin to act like 30 year teachers.
  • There are many seemingly successful alternative schools that focus on school culture, student choice, and student interest; however, are these schools actually preparing students to be contributing members or society, preparing them for the work world, and/or preparing them for trade school or college?

Interested in reading more about tenure?  Here are a few articles:

Interested in reading more about alternative schooling:

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